Epiphany 4

I think I’ve mentioned to you a few months ago this amazing book “Tattoos on the heart” by Gregory Boyle, the autobiography of a priest in the barrios of Los Angeles whose main ministry is to rehabilitate gang members by offering them a chance to work and to create community within the sphere of the church. Each story Boyle tells is quite extraordinary, and nonetheless extraordinary are the reflections he offers based on his experiences. One of the remarks that was the most striking to me – commenting on the way he would interact with the young – Boyle said: Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

And it seems to me a very good way to summarize what it is to be a Christians in the world and to follow in the steps of Jesus – Jesus who always showed compassion to everyone who would come to him. We see that again in our Gospel today. Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum and it is an important moment for him – as of Mark’s, it is likely to be Jesus’s first sermon, his introduction to the people as a rabbi – but then suddenly this man, possessed by an evil spirit, pops out of nowhere accusing Jesus of the most terrible things: You came to destroy us, he screams. And yet, instead of taking offense or ignoring the man, Jesus interrupts his teaching, take pity on the man, and heals him by rebuking the unclean spirit.

Maybe that’s not the point of the Gospel, but it gave me something to chew on as I thought about the way in our churches ministers start rolling their eyes when a cell phone goes off or when little children start to be a bit restless in their pews. Jesus does not take offense and is not irritated when he is interrupted – even when he is interrupted by a demon! Jesus drops what he is doing and addresses the situation with concern, pragmatism and love.

Jesus acts as if the response to every situation is compassion.

And I think this is a very good key of reading to help us understand the first letter to the Corinthians on which I would like to spend a little more time with you today. If you’re interested, you can stay on line / on the phone after the service and I will present to you a video that is a short introduction to the whole letter and it will give you even more background.

In a few words, in Corinth, Paul raised up a church in pagan territory, and most Christians (some Jewish, some Gentiles) struggled to find the Christian way among the worship of Greek and Roman deities. In Chapter 8 which we have heard today, the question was whether it was okay for them to eat meat out of animals that had been sacrificed in the Temple: Would it be considered as idolatry? Would it associate, somehow, the people consuming the food with the sacrifice to the pagan gods? Or on the other way around did it matter at all since the Christians aren’t supposed to believe in pagan gods, moreover don’t even think they are real since there is only one God, and besides, hadn’t Jesus declared all foods clean? The church of Corinth was divided on this issues, and to answer that, as to answer other questions throughout his letter, it is interesting to notice that Paul does not offer philosophical considerations or a treaty of theology –

Throughout the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes as if the response to every situation was love, compassion.

And for example, in this chapter 8, although we understand that, clearly, for Paul as for the other educated folks, eating meat from animals that had been sacrificed to the idols did not matter, did not do anything wrong since those idols didn’t even exist to start with, nevertheless Paul said that Christians should refrain from this practice at least in public, not to keep themselves clean, but in order to not “wound the conscience” of those who hadn’t yet come to the same understanding.

And so, of course, this question debated by Paul in not very relevant for our church today – it’s been a while we haven’t had to deal with meat sacrificed to the idols, but the way Paul answered is still relevant, and that’s what we should consider today.

Paul said that the answer was compassion. For the sake of “Not wounding another person’s conscience“. Well, it’s been a while I haven’t heard this expression! Paul insisted that Christians should have respect for other people’s beliefs, ways of thinking, even if they would hold those beliefs for lack of a better education. This Letter of Paul reminds us that we don’t build the church “puffing ourselves up with knowledge” but “building out of love”. And this Letter says something that a lot of Greeks people would have understood:

“Anyone who claims to know something does not have the necessary knowledge”: Socrates, the smartest man of all in the Antic world, used to say that the only thing he knew is that he didn’t know anything. An idea that is also brought forth by our psalm this Sunday, a psalm which reads: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – if we understand fear as awe, reverence, respect and not anxiety, terror or defiance.

The real knowledge comes with respect, compassion and love. And beyond knowledge there is wisdom, acting kindly and out of consideration for each other.

And well, as I was reading this, and thinking of all of that, as I was wondering what it means for us today, what kind do Letter Paul would write to us today – the Episcopal Church – a church where we understand ourselves so often as the “enlightened Christians”, knowledgeable, progressive, inquiring kind of folks? I wonder what Paul would think about the way we treat or consider other brothers and sisters in Christ who may not have the same education, tradition or maybe just the same sensitivity as us? Are we worried, as Paul says we should, about not wounding their conscience or being a stumbling block for them, or are we more worried about not being associated with them – the “ignorant and superstitious” Christians?

A few months ago, I read a very good article about a priest – from the Lutheran church I believe – who went on a pilgrimage to Holy land. She said that as a Protestant and as an intellectual, it was kind of embarrassing for her to see so many pilgrims bowing before icons, lighting candles on the holy sites, or kissing the foot of the statutes. Knowing that the deity indeed wasn’t in the works of art, as surely as it was probably very unlikely that Jesus was born into this or that house or made there his first miracle or preached his first sermon – The pilgrims’ reactions looked like superstition to her. And yet the priest said, as she observed them, she realized that maybe she was kind of smart and educated, but maybe she was missing something as well. To her, she realized that her faith was a lot in her head but she struggled to express it with her body: bowing, kissing, making offerings…and just let herself go in prayer and adoration. Looking closer at the other Christians instead of looking down on them, she started to think that probably there was a lack of awe and reverence in her faith, and maybe a lack of love as well, or at least her love struggled to find a way to express itself.

Well, I think it’s beautiful that not only she started to be able to have compassion, to understand with her heart what other Christians were doing, but that she was even able to put herself into question and learn something from them. I wonder how often it is that our inquiring minds are only inquiring about others, to judge and criticize, instead of questioning who we are and what’s going on inside of us.

Awe, reverence, respect, that’s maybe what those Christians criticized by other Christians in Corinth were feeling for God – They didn’t want to take a chance to do something disrespectful to God by eating the meal of idols. They wanted to do right by God, and surely the other Christians needed to respect that, instead of looking down on them as ignorant.

Now am I saying that when it comes to faith ignorance is a good thing? Certainly not. I love it that today in our Gospel, we see Jesus standing in the pulpit, reading and teaching. It was not a usual thing at the time for everyday people to be able to read – certainly it was not usual for a carpenter’s son. And we see throughout the Gospel that Jesus was indeed knowledgeable on many topics: he knew about religious tradition and Scriptures of course, but he knew also a lot about construction, farming, baking, wine fermentation and he even knew how to sew a tunic! – yet, never, never, Jesus used his education to look down on others or make fun of them. We often says that Jesus welcomed the poor, the foreigner, the sick and the disabled but we forget that Jesus welcomed simple people, the uneducated – even when they were uneducated in their own religion and their own tradition. And instead of using knowledge to “puff himself up”, as did a lot of religious leaders at the time, Jesus used his knowledge to educate the uneducated and to help them come closer to God instead of taking advantage of them.

I wonder today if we have still the same compassion and care for people? If sharing a bit of our education with others – or getting more educated to be able to share our faith – is really on top of priorities? I wonder also is – as the Lutheran priest I was talking about – we are willing to learn from others Christians – and be able to see, beyond what may seem to us like naivete or superstition, what it’s really about? Most of us are preoccupied about growing the church (in number) but how can our churches grow, if we don’t grow spiritually and intellectually and encourage one another to do so? How can we see love as playing a main part in the knowledge we want to share, to receive and to offer?

Epiphany 3

This morning, we have heard a passage from the book of Jonah.

The story of an angry, angry man.

You probably know the story but if you don’t, I invite you to open your Bible this afternoon and read it. It’s a short read, ten to fifteen minutes and it’s funny, satirical.

It’s the story of a prophet, but not your usual prophet. It’s the story of a prophet who desperately tries to escape God’s call.

God calls Jonah to go and preach repentance to Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of Israel. And Jonah refuses to do it, because for him the people of Nineveh are such bad people, they aren’t worth being forgiven. Jonah is very angry – angry at the people of Nineveh but mostly angry at God who wants to give them a second chance by warning them of the calamity that is to come. To escape from God’s call, Jonah gets on a ship headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh. But God does not let go. To stop Jonah, God sends a huge storm on the sea, the sailors throw Jonah overboard and he ends up in the stomach of a whale. After three days, the whale vomits Jonah on the shore close to the city, and – as of our passage today – God asks him again to go there and preach. Jonah finally obeys and the people of Nineveh repent, but in the last chapter of the book we learn how shocked and unhappy Jonah is that the people of Nineveh have been forgiven by God – and God has to teach Jonah again how all people are precious to him and deserve a second chance.

What is interesting is that we don’t know if in the end Jonah finally gets it or not – if he still remains angry or if he is able to change his mind about the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy. All along and until the last line, the story keeps us wondering:

Will Jonah finally answer God’s call? Will Jonah finally obey God’s commandment?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as the people of Nineveh changed their minds about God, turned from their evil ways?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as God changed of mind and did not bring a calamity on them?

And so, in the end, we realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but it’s also, and mainly, the story of the conversion of Jonah.

We realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but the story of the conversion of Jonah.

It’s hard to change our minds, isn’t it? Especially about people. When we don’t like them, we don’t like them – and sometimes for good reasons. The Assyrians were truly the enemies of the Israelite. And it was assumed for the people of Israel that God was one their side, that they had God’s favor and that God hated their enemies as much as they did.

It’s easy to believe that God is on our side, isn’t it? That our God is the true God who agrees with everything that we do and everything that we believe in. In this country, a lot of people claim to have God on their side and struggle a lot to see the good in others, to see how God could be with them or how they can call themselves “Christians”.

Maybe that’s a reason why the story of Jonah is worth reading today, because the story is not here to teach us who is wrong or who is right and who has access to God and who is denied access. The story is here to tell us that God has a claim on all people. I am not sure God claims that the people of Nineveh are good people. That’s actually the other way around: The story tells us that God plans to punish them to put an end to their evil ways. But first, God wants to give them a warning and a chance to come back. What we learn is that the people of Nineveh may not be good people, but you see, they are people. They may not be good people, but they are people. And God has mercy on them. Actually, the book of Jonah mentions that God also has mercy on animals and even on trees.

They may not be good people but they still are people – and God longs for Jonah to understand things this way, and we understand quickly that it’s not only the people of Nineveh who need to repent of the evil they do, it’s also, and mainly, Jonah, who needs to repent from his stubbornness, his judgmental and unforgiving ways. Throughout the story, we keep wondering: Will Jonah change his mind? But more deeply, the question is: Will Jonah change his heart?

Will Jonah change his heart? Because it’s mostly about that isn’t it? Jonah has no heart for the people. He does not feel sorry for them, he isn’t concerned, he isn’t touched, they are not his problem. It’s easy to think isn’t it that people aren’t our problem, or that they are beyond redemption? But God is concerned with all people, and even animals and even plants and trees.

And so the story is the story about God trying to break through Jonah’s carapace, God trying to break through Jonah’s hardness of heart. In the end, we still don’t know what will happen. Will Jonah open his heart to compassion or will he die bitter, resentful and angry? There is only so much God can do, only so much God can ask, only so much God can explain.

It’s up to Jonah to live up to his calling and to accept – or not – the change God wants to bring in him.

The Gospel today is also about God calling people, as Jesus calls his disciples on the sea shore of Galilee. We may have gotten used to this story, that Jesus called fishermen, but it was an extraordinary thing to do at the time. Rabbis and teachers would wait for their students to apply to their schools, and check if they were worthy of their teaching before receiving them as their disciples. But throughout the Gospel, Jesus goes to the people and call them all, good and bad, religious or not.

Still today all are called but it’s also up to us to live up to our calling. God wants to give us a new heart, but as with Jonah, there is only so much God can do. God can explain again and again, but in the end, compassion cannot be demonstrated, cannot be explained, you have to let yourself feel it in your heart. The story of God trying to convince Jonah of having compassion on the Ninevites reminds me of those words by Dr Fauci addressing the Nation, when he said: I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. I think that sometimes God does not know how to explain to us that we should care about one another and be compassionate if, like Jonah, we decide we won’t listen.

And so, we don’t know how the story of Jonah will end, but what we are asked today is maybe to think about the end of our own story. Will we care for people and have compassion on them – not because they’re good or even innocent people, but because they are people too, and they are still people whatever they end up saying or doing, and God cares for them too? It’s not about forgoing our desire for justice, but the question is: How do we desire justice to happen? Do we want to punish people, to make them pay, to have our revenge on our enemies, or do we desire that justice will lead them to change and to come back to better ways – and do we ourselves accept to change and be reconciled in the process?

That’s the question God is asking Jonah and still asks each one of us today. And we know how hard it is. Prophets, like Christians, can be hard-hearted.

The good news for us is that as Jesus calls his disciples in our Gospel today, he asks them to follow – he does not ask them to have it all figured out. They are who they are, and we know that if they jump right away out of their boats, excited by the adventure, it’s going to be along journey for them to understand who Jesus is. We know how difficult it will be for them to change, to repent, to let their hearts be touched by Jesus’s message and Jesus’s compassion on all people: Foreigners, Roman centurions, tax collectors, rude women. Yes, indeed, it will be very difficult for the disciples to let their hearts be transformed. We know how difficult it was for Simon Peter who will let Jesus down when he realizes Jesus is not a conquering Messiah. We know how hard it will be for James and John, who will ask Jesus to be the among the greatest in the Kingdom. Mark’s Gospel is the Gospel of the disciples who don’t get it – but they learn and they keep on learning. And Jesus will model their hearts after his own just because they are open to Jesus’ teaching.

So today, let us ask Jesus also to model for us heart worthy of our calling, let us allow God to change us, and heal us. That our desire to bring justice in our common world and in our own worlds may not be cut off from a profound desire for understanding, healing and reconciliation. As with the first disciples, it may take the time it may take, but we don’t have to have it all figured out, we just have to be on our way.

Epiphany 2

– Maybe you have been watching this new show, “The Chosen”? A show about Jesus’s disciples. I enjoyed it very much, and would strongly recommend it to you. It really makes the Gospel come to life. Those people we’ve heard so much about, suddenly they become alive, you discover their stories, their families, their friends, their joys and their struggles, their hopes. From “flat characters” they become 3D people.

Of course, it’s just a story, the screenwriters elaborate based on the little we know about the disciples. Because indeed, there is very little we know. It’s especially the case with Nathaniel we meet in our passage of the Gospel today – although he was one of the 12, this passage of John’s is basically all that the Scriptures mention about this man.

So what do we learn about Nathaniel in this passage? Well, as I was reading it, I thought it was funny you know, because I realized I had always assumed that Jesus picked his disciples among young men full of strength, energy and enthusiasm. But it’s hardly the case here, isn’t it? The least we can say is that Nathaniel doesn’t run to meet Jesus. As Philip announces him the incredible news, that “They have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophet wrote”, Nathaniel does not seem very responsive. He rebukes Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, and then, when he is finally introduced to Jesus, he asks him: “Do you know me?”, the kind of rebuke you would give to someone you haven’t met yet and who act a little bit too familiar with you.

– And so here it is, in a few lines, what we seem to learn about Nathaniel: he is sarcastic, and even a little bit prejudiced, cynical, a tough cookie. As I was reading this, I was thinking that maybe I wouldn’t want to make friends with him – but maybe he wouldn’t want to make friends with me either. He does not seem to want to make friends with Jesus. And yet, Jesus wants to make friends with him. Jesus tells him: “I saw you under the fig tree” and we are left to wonder what it could mean.

Well, as you can imagine, scholars and theologians have elaborated on that for centuries. The fig tree is known to be a symbol for Israel, it is also the traditional place where one would study the Torah, the Law of Moses Philip is speaking about. So it makes for a lot of symbolism but it does not help us much to get to know the character. I was thinking about that this week as I was working on my sermon, trying to focus my thoughts while constantly going back to the news: watching the news, talking about the news, thinking about the news, worrying about the news. And then this is what happened to me. At the end of the day, I had to leave my apartment just to take a 10mn break from all of this, books, TV and devices, and I sat on a bench in a park. That’s when I raised my eyes and realized I was sitting under a tree. Oh it wasn’t a fig tree, probably a magnolia – although for me it’s hard to tell in this season – but I had to smile and Jesus’s words came back to mind: “I saw you under the fig tree”. I thought about Nathaniel.

Maybe he was also looking for a break, maybe his soul was tired. Maybe he was longing for something. When Jesus tells him that he saw him under the fig tree, he doesn’t mean so much something like he saw him with his eyes, like we would bump into somebody we know on the parking lot or at the store. Jesus means that he could see him, who he really was and what was going on inside of him. Maybe, beyond the mask of cynicism and toughness, Jesus saw defensiveness, Nathaniel’s weary heart and his longing for something real. A man “with no deceit in him”, looking for something, or someone, who wouldn’t deceive him.

And Jesus comes to meet him and in a short sentence shows him that he knows him, that he sees him and that he cares about him – exactly what the God of Israel has always been doing, as we are reminded in our psalm: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you know my sitting down and my rising up, you discern my thoughts from afar“.

Thinking about Nathaniel gave me hope for all of us who may not feel young, or full of energy and enthusiasm, as we are wearied and discouraged – maybe because of our our own individual circumstances, maybe because of what’s going on in this country and in the world, maybe because of all of this. Jesus knows about that, sees through that and raises disciples among these people. Jesus actually came on earth at a time when people were weary and discouraged and had kind of lost hope in better days.

So what makes the difference? What makes Nathaniel stand out in spite of being so much like many people at his time and like so many of us? What can we learn from him?

– Well, I think something important is that, under his cynicism, we can understand that he didn’t want a cheap consolation. He was looking for the real thing and if it wasn’t there, then he wanted nothing at all. He didn’t want to be cajoled or entertained by a false Messiah, by empty words or a fake religion that was all about rites and disconnected from the longings of the heart and the search for justice and truth. We hear Nathaniel shout for joy when he finally realizes who Jesus is: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”. He has found the real thing. But this is what we learn from him: we cannot find the real thing if we aren’t real too, wholehearted, refusing the hypocrisy Jesus spent his life condemning. It means of course that we have to renounce false gods and false saviors who shift away the responsibilities from us or comfort us with illusions when life becomes difficult. Somehow, like Nathaniel, we are to be able to face the darkness of the world, of our lives, to endure the pain.

So one of my questions for us today is: Are we able also to confront the pain and the darkness, to see them for what they are or do we turn our backs on them in ignorance and denial? “Epiphany” is the time of the year when we celebrate the light, but how can we find the light of Christ is we are blinded by an artificial lights? Can we find true hope and true salvation if we cling to unrealistic optimism and superficial healing?

– This is where we may want to draw the line between becoming cynical and looking for authenticity. I am amazed to realize that, in our readings today, everybody has a dream! Samuel has a dream, MLK has a dream, and even Nathaniel starts to be able to dream again. What does it mean to have a dream? Once again, it shouldn’t be cheap consolation that just comforts us when life gets too hard. On the contrary, having a dream is to have a vision, to see a way through when life is difficult. Not only for ourselves, but also for others. Jesus promises Nathaniel that he will see great things, Jesus rescues Nathaniel from his discouragement and his cynicism by giving him a vision, and from that Nathaniel can start his ministry with Jesus, in the same way that MLK started his ministry having this vision of justice and equality for Black people, in the same way that Samuel will become a priest according to God’s heart after God has thrown down the sons of Eli who abused their power as priests.

– How do we do that? How is it that we are given a vision? It’s maybe a question we want to think about as we are heading to our Annual meeting, renewing our commitment to the mission of our church.

Maybe we also need to sit under the fig tree, in spite of the business of our lives, or in spite of our fatigue or loss of energy. We need to sit under the fig tree and search our souls for something real so we are given also the invitation to “come and see”. Maybe Nathaniel was praying on that day, asking for God to show up in his life, maybe he had words for this prayer, maybe he didn’t. Yet he had faith enough, in spite of all his doubts, to follow Philip.

This week, I attended a formation about prayer. And what the leader told us that I found very striking is that, for her, prayer wasn’t about saying these or those words, standing or kneeling. She said that prayer was about showing up and be attentive. Make ourselves available to God – and God does the rest. She told us this funny story that she has a very good friend who is also her colleague and on her birthday, her friend showed up with something for her, but she was so busy at work, her friend had finally to interrupt her to ask her: “When will you be able to give 10mn of your day so I can give you the gift?”. And she said to us: it looks so much like our lives. We run from one thing to another, would it be only in our minds, all the while God is standing there waiting to give us a gift. She said: prayer is to open up to receive the gift. We don’t have to be young, strong, full of energy or enthusiasm, God will refresh us as Jesus refreshed Nathaniel in the blink of an eye on this day he met with him.

I will leave you with those words MLK spoke in his sermon A Knock at Midnight, confessing his own feelings of weariness and discouragement, and how the Spirit of God would find him in prayer and meditation to restore his strengths:

Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world . . . He promised never to leave me . . . I don’t mind telling you that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I moved through Mississippi, and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticism even from Negros, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work is in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick souls.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and we’re (almost literally) diving into the waters of the Jordan and into Mark’s Gospel, a Gospel we will continue to read during our new liturgical year. For those of you who are interested, I will show a video after this service (you can also listen to it if you’re joining us on the phone), a video that presents an overview of Mark’s Gospel, the storyline and the main themes.

In a few words, Mark’s Gospel is the most ancient of the four Gospels, it’s also the shortest one. There is a reason for that. In Mark’s, Jesus is presented as a man of action: Jesus recruits his disciples, he heals, exorcises demons, feeds the people and is always on the move. We studied Matthew’s Gospel last year and we spent time on Jesus’s extended parables and teachings. Nothing like that in Mark! We go straight to the point. Jesus came into the world to save people and he gets on the job, he is always active and busy!

Another interesting feature in Mark’s Gospel is that the evangelist makes a point to show us Jesus’s humanity. It has been said by scholars that Mark’s Gospel is the most authentic, the closest to the “Historical Jesus” . Well, as Christians we believe that all Gospels are authentic and historical, but you could see the reason why most scholars have been upholding this Gospel as the closest to the first disciples’ experience: Jesus, although proclaimed the Son of God right from the beginning (as we see in this passage of the baptism) and in the end by the centurion standing at the cross, Jesus is presented as very human. For example, Mark’s Gospel makes many references to Jesus’ emotions: In this Gospel, Jesus gets often tired or impatient, sometimes afraid, and even moody or angry.

Far from disturbing us, I think those references to Jesus’s character are very important because they can help us to relate to him. Jesus, as we said again and again during the Christmas season, wasn’t in this world only “among us”, he was really one of us: The Son of God and yet a human being like you and me. It is very clear right from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in this first chapter: Jesus waits in line (a very human experience!) in the crowd, to be baptized by John in the wilderness, although, as John notices, John wasn’t worthy to even untie Jesus’s sandals – and then the heavens break open to confirm John’s intuition: This man, who looks like any other man, is also the Messiah.

And so this is one of the aims of Mark’s Gospel: To keep us wondering and questioning about this mystery: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Jesus is fully human – From there, we see how Jesus can be an example, a model for all of us who want to follow him and be intimate with God, be God’s children. As we wonder who Jesus is, we question also who we are and this is I think a very important question. A question that a lot of people wonder about these days. This is at least the feeling I had this past week.

As I was watching the news, scrolling down articles on line and social medias, one of the things that struck me was the redounding comment a lot of people made. People, as they were reacting to the events that took place at the Capitol, asked again and again: “Is it who we are?”. Some said, most said: “This is not who we are”, or “This is not America”. But on the other way around, there were also many people saying, in response to them: “Actually, this is who we are” and “Take a good look, because this is what America is right now”.

And so, in the comments, declarations, interviews, there was a constant back and forth between people who couldn’t believe what was going on in the Capital Nation, because this didn’t look like anything they believed about themselves, the people and the country, and also people not so surprised by what was going on, acknowledging that this was the sad reality of what the country and the people were really about. To them, the veil was just lifted on people’s true nature in this time of conflict.

Between the two, who’s right, who’s wrong, is it who we are or is it really nothing like us, to that I don’t have an answer right away, but what I noticed is that because of the very disturbing events that took place this week, it’s like a lot of people seemed to start to question their own personal and national identity and were led to deeper questions:

Who is it that we are, really? Are we good people inside, is human (or American) nature good, or is goodness all just surface, an illusion, because when comes a crisis we realize our inner violence and folly? Maybe it’s a question you asked yourself too, and are still asking.

Well, if you would like to step back a little bit today, you may agree with me that this question is not new, and it is shown easily when we talk about what it means to be human. “To be human” both means, first, to refuse cruelty and injustices, like when we say “Treating others humanely”, but when we say “It’s human” or “We are only humans” we also mean that it is in our nature to make mistakes, to be weak, to contradict ourselves and to do bad things.

This is where, I think, is the connection with today’s Gospel, because those questions were Mark’s, those questions were Mark’s people’s questions and have been Christians’ questions for centuries: Looking at Jesus, they wondered what it meant about themselves. They wondered: Who is it that we are? What does it mean to be human? What does it means to be human in front of God? Do we believe that we are wretched sinners, a fallen race, called to repentance, in need of being cleansed, and forgiven, or is there something inside of us that gives us a special connection to the divine, “Sons and daughters of God” and, as in our passage today: “Beloved by God”, people with whom “God is well pleased”?

What do you think? Do you believe that God is well pleased with us, or do you believe that our true nature is to be rebellious against God, false and violent?

Well, to answer this question, Mark simply, and beautifully, introduces Jesus, the Son of God, a Son of God who, throughout Mark’s Gospel, takes hold of his humanity, steps in the waters of baptism with the sinners, shares a table with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and at times shows himself highly emotional, subject to anger, fear and suffering. And yet as the Gospel unfolds, Jesus proves right everything that was prophetized about The Messiah: Jesus behaves like the Son of God. He is compassionate with the poor, heals, feeds and sets free, resists evil powers, tells the truth to his opponents at the cost of his life. Jesus shows us what it means to be baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit.

And so, to me, the very interesting point is that Mark, in his Gospel, as Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (as we read in our 2nd reading) shows us that as Christians we can hold altogether this dual, and for many conflicting, reality: We have to be baptized in water because we are sinners, and we can also be baptized in the Holy Spirit, because we are the Son and daughters of God.

We are up to the worst, but we can also accomplish the best.

And it is not because we have an inner nature that is good, or because we have an inner nature that is bad. Or both in the same time. To me it means that we have the choice. We have the choice. As human we can choose who we are. If you’ve ever studied a bit of philosophy, you know that this was the Creed of existentialism: There is not a definition of what it means to be human. Human beings can be whatever they want to be. Something we often hear in this country, right? In America, you can be whoever you want to be.

Yes, we have the choice.

We cannot take for granted who we are. We have to choose ourselves again and again, choose who we want to be. After his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Spirit in the wilderness and will endure many temptations: Greed, power, glory. Jesus, didn’t fake it as a man in this world. Jesus as a child of God, also had to choose who he wanted to be, not only on this one day in the waters of the Jordan, but every day. He endured many temptations: He was discouraged, attacked by his enemies, left on his own, misunderstood by his friends. Jesus suffered a whole lot emotionally and physically to continue to do the right thing, to be compassionate and kind, to show’s God’s love and embody what it means to be God’s child.

How do we do that? That’s a question we may need to ask ourselves, as I said, every single day. But the Gospel and the book of Acts reminds us today that we have two “tools” (if I may use this expression) that are at our disposition: A baptism of water, a baptism of repentance, and a baptism of fire, a baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of water is on us, as it was on John and on John’s people. Repentance in Greek means “to turn around”, to “change one’s mind” and it is very interesting because in this world it’s often not seen as a good thing to change our minds, we’re afraid it’d make us look weak, undecided or unreliable, or maybe it would just make us look like an idiot. But to God, it’s never too late to do the right thing, and it’s never ridiculous or shameful to acknowledge that we have strayed and made mistakes, that we have hurt people. We just need to say that we were wrong and that we are sorry. We spend a lot of time commenting people’s behavior, but what about our own? The Gospel tells us again and again that we are ALL in need of repentance.

The second “tool” we are given is the baptism of fire, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We have power to decide the good, to choose life and life giving ways, but we often don’t have the strength, or the will to carry on, especially when life becomes difficult. That’s when we are reminded by John that this baptism is the Messiah’s job, it is God’s job to sanctify us. Jesus didn’t come only to experience what it was to be human, or even to show a beautiful example of what it could mean to be a human being, leaving us even more helpless and desperate about out own sinfulness. Jesus came so we can be “adopted” by God, full human being and yet God’s children because we would be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So I invite you now, after the hymn, to renew with me your baptism’s promises. Because we need to make the choice, again and again, of who we want to be.